In a trip to Buenos Aires, you should at least once dance in Plaza Dorrego.
Here in the heart of San Telmo is the most iconic square, where on Sunday nights locals and tourists dance tango under the stars. Pedro ‘El Indio’ Benavente organises the milonga, providing sound system, lighting and a demonstration, and it runs from 7 - 11 pm in the summer months. It is part of what makes San Telmo the tango barrio.
Stephanie and I arrange to meet Miss Moneypenny and TT there after 8 pm. “We will be sitting on the little wall where you change your shoes, or dancing” adds Stephanie; and indeed we are dancing when they arrive from their different barrios.
With our street shoes tucked inside our bags, and the bags placed securely in the pile next to where Pedro masterminds his playlist, Stephanie and I have squeezed onto the floor for a tanda of Calo. We join dancers of all ages and abilities. Our attention is drawn to a young and energetic couple as they ladle their DNI moves across the polished tiles. Then our discerning eye fixes on a mature couple in their 70’s who dance in close embrace. He gives a clear but sensitive lead, and despite her elderly thickened calfs, she collects her heels perfectly and dances like a dream. They are the prize of the floor.
We dance a circuit of the pista just before the tanda finishes. For Stephanie, this is like tasting a shard of chocolate from a whole bar, and she wants more. So despite the next tanda being ‘milonga’ - a quicker form of dance - we return starting sedately with Canaro’s Milonga Sentimental.
I do my best with my new found milonga skills following Patrick Arellano’s instruction, and these are just good enough for the first three tunes of the tanda. A fourth song is fast and the floor has become crowded, so at my request, Stephanie and I step from the pista to resume our places on the wall to watch.
As the final song progresses there is a moment of consternation. Dancers group to one side of the pista. From our position it is impossible to see what transpires. Shortly, we are aware of figures rushing from the southern end of the plaza. The music falters, then stops. Circling dancers stand in couples; and couples in silent groups. They look from side to side questioningly. The non-dancers that crowd and watch from the perimeter of the pista break the moment with animated questions and comments.
Gradually, the pista clears. Tangueros are returning to their places at the edge of the square. A hush descends.
The joy of tango is not simply the mastery of an intricate and difficult dance. It is about a journey within an embrace. Often we hold - or are held by strangers in an intimate embrace, that speaks of a primeval need to be loved, to belong, or at least acknowledged as we go through life.
Tango is a hard journey, through testing times before reaching the goal of fluidity and true connection. For this reason, the skills of young, quick dancers are not the ones that we covet. They are yet to qualify for milonguero status. The older, experienced dancers often hold the key to tango. They take time, in silence they listen to each other and the music, they connect, and they accommodate the moment. And so it is here in Plaza Dorrego. Life, love, anxiety, and intimacy are played out each Sunday as dancers travel to their chosen destination in their own personal tango journey.
Four figures are now kneeling on the ground in concentric focus. There is movement, but little activity. A circle of watchers gathers. Something is amiss. Don Bernabe, the grandfather of this little milonga, speaks quietly with Pedro. He in turn moves forward, but to stop. We hear the sound of a siren as it draws closer on the night air.
The figure on the ground is that of a tanguero of senior age. His polished tango shoes glint in the evening light as he lays.
Time suffuses and the evening gathers in a surreal envelope. Dancers wait in the shadows, patiently, and expectantly. The expectation is that the figure will rise from the floor. Perhaps he will be helped to a seated position, be assisted to the wall where someone will produce a bottle of water for a much needed drink.
But that expectation is not to be. The figure does not rise, nor now can anyone assist him on this final journey. Even the crowd of tango watchers falls silent. On the far side of the plaza in Defensa, the drumming of the carnival drummers ceases. Plaza Dorrego has never witnessed such silence. People huddle together and whisper. Faces that were intent on dance now look drawn with sadness. A frailty is cast across this place. It is the frailty of life itself. It is - at the end of the final furlong - the end of a journey.
Miss Moneypenny brushes a tear from her eye, and TT places a motherly arm around her shoulder. I pull a shoe lace and reach for my street shoes. Stephanie gathers her bag and folds a wrap close around her. Without words, we walk. I pass Don Bernabe to give him a hug. “This is how life is”, says Pedro Benavente philosophically and without drama.
Back in Defensa we climb four flights of stairs to our rooftop apartment. Moneypenny and TT join us for they sense this moment should be shared, rather than ignored. With a bottle of wine to ease the weight, we sit in the half light and speak of tango, and of mortality.
His was a tango journey that ended as tango journeys should end. Whilst the aftermath is of unimaginable grief, the moment was that of a tango dancer on a tango floor within a close embrace. Together we clink our glasses and wish him 'Godspeed'.